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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
A SOLDIER’S PLAY
at American Airlines Theatre

GOOD MEDICINE
By JEREMY GERARD

  Rob Demery, J. Alphonse Nicholson and McKinley Belcher III/ Ph: Joan Marcus

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s flawless revival of A Soldier’s Play is such good medicine for Broadway’s January blues that it might be enough just to tick off its merits: a gripping murder mystery heightened by crackling dialog, a first-class ensemble of actors in symphonic harmony, staging that audaciously adds a pinch of sex appeal to heat up its social consciousness, and just enough music to give it a pulsing rhythm and beat that delivers us to its shocking conclusion in just under two hours. That’s the good news, and there’s only good news to report.
 
Charles Fuller’s drama, first presented by the Negro Ensemble Company in 1981, entered the canon of American classics, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and engendering several successful revivals, not to mention Norman Jewison’s solid 1984 film (which retitled it A Soldier’s Story). Kenny Leon’s production, however, marking the play’s belated Broadway debut, couldn’t seem fresher, timelier or more satisfying.
 
I admit to being a longtime admirer of Leon’s work as a director who refuses to be pigeonholed. His New York credits include last year’s updated Much Ado About Nothing in Central Park, the severely underappreciated Tupac Shakur musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me, along with star-driven revivals of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Raisin in the Sun and several plays by August Wilson. This suggests a director who prizes craftsmanship at least as much as concept.
 
Set on a Louisiana Army base in 1944, the play announces its mystery immediately: A black officer, obviously drunk, stumbles across the darkened stage, bellowing “They’ll still hate you!” several times before falling quiet. Shortly after, a gunshot breaks the silence, soon followed by another.
 
The lights come up on the black company’s barracks (the Spartan set is by Derek McLane, and the complex – I’d almost call it articulate – lighting is by Allen Lee Hughes). Under the supervision of a white officer, the men and their meager belongings are being searched for any evidence of involvement in the murder earlier that morning. “This is a precaution,” Captain Taylor (Jerry O’Connell, a ringer for the young Tom Cruise) tells them. “We can’t have revenge killings, so we search for weapons.”
 
It is the men's assumption that Sergeant Waters (David Alan Grier, whose association with the play reaches back to its beginnings) was lynched by the Klan. But that assumption is undercut by their mixed, mostly negative feelings about Waters, who was mean, vengeful and cruel to his squad, especially those who struck him as “geechy.”    
“What kinda colored man are you?” asks PFC Peterson (Nnamdi Asomugha, in a powerfully understated performance) after a particularly degrading tirade during the flashbacks that are key to giving us the backstory.  
“I’m a soldier, Peterson!” Waters snaps back. “First, last and always! I’m the kinda colored man that don’t like lazy, shiftless Negroes! … If it wasn’ for you Southern niggahs, yessahin’, bowin’ and scrapin’, scratchin’ your heads, white folks wouldn’ think we were all fools! ... The day of the geechy is gone, boy.”
 
Enter Captain Davenport (Blair Underwood), assigned by the Military Police Corps Unit to investigate Waters’ death. “Call me Davenport,” he announces. With his aviator sunglasses, no-nonsense ‘tude and the stripes that confer authority, Davenport is the opposite of geechy. When he shows up to begin questioning the men, Taylor is unabashed in his suspicion that a black lawyer was sent as a setup for failure, and unashamed to declare his own bigotry: “I don’t want to offend you, but I just cannot get used to it,” he tells Davenport. “The bars, the uniform – being in charge just doesn’t look right on Negroes!”
 
Fuller is as concerned about intra-racial prejudice as he is about bigotry. Waters has had one of his men (the superb Billy Eugene Jones) stripped of his sergeants’ stripes for being drunk while on duty. His determination to break a new recruit, the guitar-picking, blues-singing C.J. Memphis (J. Alphonse Nicholson, in a charismatic performance) has tragic consequences, while the rest of the men persevere under his taunts. If Davenport is Ishmael in this story, Waters is Ahab, obsessed and driven to a kind of insanity that can only lead to his undoing.
 
Even notwithstanding its feel-good conclusion, A Soldier’s Play is exceptionally well crafted, and Leon knows exactly how to deliver the goods. The musical set pieces are beautifully executed, and the suspense coils like a mainspring. There’s a hilarious and eminently forgivable bit of beefcake at the top of the second act, when Davenport comes down center stage as he slowly begins to button up his chest-exposing shirt. The crowd was raucously aswoon the night I saw the show – just as the audience was for much the same vision when Underwood’s Stanley Kowalski peeled before his Stella in a 2011 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire.
 
It is Fuller’s great accomplishment that he leaves a corridor of empathy within his portrait of an unheroic hero. And it’s testament to Leon’s keened regard for the text that, like a great conductor, he’s unafraid to bring out all the details of someone we are determined not to love.
 
I heard an echo of Fuller’s influence a few nights later at Paris, having its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company’s second stage. This work, by newcomer Eboni Booth, is set in the break room of a big-box store in underwhelming Paris, Vermont. It tells the by-now familiar tale of an overworked, underpaid work force, driven harder each day by a manager who can be friendly one minute, brutal the next.
 
Like Sergeant Waters, the manager, Gar (played by Eddie K. Robinson with a fine balance of menace and empathy) has risen through the ranks and has no tolerance for what he sees as lazy workers ungrateful for their $5-an-hour pay.
 
“If I don’t keep them in line – what job do you have where you can just do whatever you want, be wherever you want?” Gar asks. “I can’t have employees running around, breaking shit, unaccounted for. There’s a system here.” And like Waters, Gar learns that when the system is rigged against you – whether the “you” is a person of color, a woman, a Jew ­– “they” will still hate you despite all your efforts to accommodate.

Paris is not a good play, but it shows promise. It wears out its welcome long before its 90 minutes have elapsed and doesn’t know how to end. But Booth is on to something. Much of the dialogue crackles with verisimilitude and the group portrait of social-descending coworkers on the verge of despair rings true. I look forward to the next work from this writer.

 


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